COLOGNE, Germany — Following a lull in military exercises due to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Army Europe plans to resume its wider training campaign with a drill in Poland next month.
The June 5-19 exercise, Allied Spirit, will take place at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in northwestern Poland and is slated to include a Polish airborne operation and a U.S.-Polish division-size river crossing, according to a statement issued by the Wiesbaden, Germany-based command.
The drill was originally planned for this month as an ancillary event to U.S. European Command’s large-scale Defender Europe drill. Military officials have vowed to implement health precautions to protect participants and the local population.
For the reemergence of the Defender Europe campaign, exercise planners are able to work with equipment stocks that were previously drawn from storage sites in Europe or shipped from U.S. installations before the order to halt the deployment came down in March.
“In total, over 6,000 Soldiers and 3,000 pieces of equipment arrived in Europe, and over 9,000 vehicles were moved from Army Prepositioned Stocks to training areas in Germany,” U.S. Army Europe said in a statement.
Officials claim that “many of the strategic readiness objectives were met” despite the monthslong pause.
Of the 6,000 soldiers to be involved in Allied Spirit next month, roughly 4,000 will come from U.S. Army units, including the 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters (Forward); the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team; and the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, the command statement read.
The 2,000 Polish participants will come from the 6th Polish Airborne Brigade; the 9th Polish Armored Calvary Brigade; and the 12th Polish Mechanized Brigade.
The drill in Poland picks up on the overarching theme of deploying allied formations from Germany to would-be hot spots on NATO’s eastern flank, with sizable rivers presenting obstacles along the way.
The topography in northern Poland resembles that of the Missouri lake region, which means proficiency in so-called wet-gap crossing operations is paramount in massing allied troops to reinforce the Baltics just to the east, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Defense News.
“In actual conflict you can't assume all the highway bridges would still be standing,” he said.
NATO armies have the capability of building ad hoc bridges for tanks and other heavy equipment, most notably the U.K. and Germany with their M3 amphibious vehicles. “The problem is there is not enough of it,” Hodges said.
The shortfall puts the spotlight on the larger problem of military mobility in Europe. The Defender Europe exercise and its offspring drills are meant to test the flow of personnel and equipment across borders on the continent. The tasks involve sorting out the bureaucratic and infrastructure-related differences impeding the rapid transit of cargo.
Meanwhile, an envisioned multibillion-dollar European Union fund aimed at boosting all aspects of military mobility among member states stands to be all but axed as the bloc's focus shifts to economic recovery following the coronavirus crisis, according to a Reuters report this week.
NATO officials have had a keen interest in the money, as it would inject military specifications into infrastructure planing all over the continent.
Camille Grand, assistant secretary general for defense investment at NATO, told Defense News the objective will remain a priority regardless of what happens to the EU funding commitment.
“I'm afraid it is heavily connected to the overall outcome of the budget discussion, and we won't see the outcome until the end of the year,” he said in an interview last month.
If the fund were to go away, he said, individual nations would have to step up in seeing their bridges, tunnels and railway upgrades through.
“It’s the sort of investment that it would be great for the EU to invest into this and that we highly welcome at NATO, but it is not something that is out of reach. It might take a little longer or will have to be financed through other means, but at the end of the day it’s not a showstopper,” he said.
As for the work to streamline cross-border transit procedures, that’s moving “quite rapidly, both in an EU and NATO context,” he said.
According to U.S. Army Europe, future drills are planned in the Baltics involving the command’s 10th Army Air & Missile Defense Command and 41st Field Artillery Brigade. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is also planning airborne operations in the Balkans and Black Sea region.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.